Merry Christmas ya filthy animal! As this Holiday season approaches so too can our stress levels increase as a dizzying array of demands begin to appear. Be it shopping, decorating, entertaining or cooking, the stress of the season can build like a towering pile of presents on the verge of collapse. But like Santa said in Miracle of 34st Street, “Christmas isn’t just a day, it's a frame of mind”. So for this post I’m reflecting on stress, what it means, and how yoga can help us alleviate stress.
Enjoy the read!
B.S.K. Iyengar, the founder of Iyengar style of yoga, stated that “life is of itself stressful” in his book Light on Life (2005, p. 78). Iyengar went on to explain that stress does not have to be perceived as inherently bad. Whether it be finishing a project, meeting a deadline, challenging us creatively, beginning something new, or making a change, Iyengar recognised that there are certain situations that evoke stress but result in a positive outcome. We also know from over a century of scientific study that stress is an instinctual response (Brooks, Koizumi, Pinkston, 1975). The feeling of stress is physiologically evoked in the ‘fight-or-flight’ response as a survival mechanism to react quickly when in life-threatening situations. (Harvard Health Publishing, 2016). When evoked, the sympathetic nervous system, acts by secreting specific hormones: adrenalin or epinephrine. These brings result in increased blood pressure, heart race, and body metabolism, allowing the individual to fight the threat or to flee to safety.
Modern life in the western world is, for the most part, free of the basic stressors of survival: Food, water, shelter, healthcare, education. We regulate water and food so that those in need may have access. Public housing provides shelter for even the poorest in our society. In England, the National Healthy System provides basic healthcare and Education is free and available to children from every background, creed, race, and denomination. Our general population is living longer than ever before yet the stress levels are the highest recorded (Greenberg, 2017). Our modern society, with its previously unparalleled technological advances and unlimited access to knowledge via the internet, has minimised the basic stressors of survival in exchange for a different form of social stress in the guise of greed, anger, competition, unhealthy ambition, doubt, unattainable aspirations, some of which are self induced and some of which derive from the pressures of our society.
In the 1970s and early 1980s Dr. Herbert Benson, a professor of medicine at Harvard University, wrote two books, The Relaxation Response in 1975 and Beyond the Relaxation Response in 1984. His studies brought relaxation into the forefront of progressive medical study (Komjathy, p. 631). In contrast to the fight-or-flight that stimulates over activity of the sympathetic nervous system, the relaxation response engages the parasympathetic nervous system allowing adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol levels to drop, heart rate and blood pressure to return to normal levels, and reduces muscle tension (Lusk, p. 55-57). According to Benson, the relaxation response could be induced using a combination of deep breathing, focusing on a repetition of calming words, visualization of tranquil scenes, prayer, yoga, and tai chi.
Movement therapies such as yoga and tai chi bring about the relaxation response as they combine breathing with mindfulness to induce calm and create mental space to separate and dilute stress to manageable levels. Yoga, in particular allows practitioners to enter into deep relaxation throughout the physical yoga asana practice via relaxation postures like shavasana or practices like Yoga Nidra (Lusk, p. 78). Deep relaxation can also promote lowering heart rate and blood pressure while reducing muscle tension but it can also assist in natural digestion, slowing down the respiratory rate and decreasing oxygen consumption, while also improving sleep.
Though Dr. Benson may have coined the term, the relaxation response has been an innately understood aspect of yogic philosophy and the physical yoga asana practice. From ancient yogic texts like the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali to medieval texts like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, breath and meditation have been seen to not only calm the mind but also create physical changes in the body to better overall wellness. Returning to Iyengar’s writing in Light on Life, he provides the perfect analogy for the use of yoga to engage the relaxation response and to combat stress:
“When it rains heavily, the water does not necessarily penetrate the earth. If the surface is dry and hard, the rain water floods the surface and runs off. But if it rains gradually for many days continuously, and the ground is moist, then the water seeps deep into the earth, which is good for cultivation and for life. Similarly in ourselves, we must moisten our muscles and nerves through the expansion and extension of the various asana. In this way, the stress that saturates the brain is diffused throughout the rest of the body, so the brain is rested and released from strain and the body release its stress and strain through movement.” (2005, p. 78)
According to Iyengar, the physical practice of yoga provides an outlet in the body to disseminate from the mind. It is important to keep in mind, that the physical practice of yoga is just one aspect of yogic philosophy. As is the relaxation response just one way to diffuse stress and it is not a cure all. Other social and medical interventions can support the relaxation response in the reduction of stress. Social support, for example, is necessary for dealing with stress. Friendships, family, co-workers, spouses all help create an emotional support to combat stress.
Stress is ever present in our modern world. From job pressures, money, health, relationships, media overload, and sleep deprivation, it can be hard to instinctively tune into the relaxation response. Indeed, Yoga can be a way to engage with the relaxation response, allowing our mind to settle so that the body can process stress. Having this knowledge can transform our perception of stress from something frightening to something that we can manoeuvre. Something we can deal with and something we need not struggle with. Yes, ‘Life is of itself stressful’ but we are capable of prevailing.